Clean Room, Clear Mind: Why Success Starts With Organization, Not Chaos

by Dan Scotti

For five months, I lived across the street from a restaurant, in the heart of Florence, Italy.

It wasn’t even a street, really, but more of a cobblestone passage, just wide enough for one of those small European cars to make its way through.

The restaurant, itself, was run by a man named Lorenzo, who appeared to be your classic Italian trattoria owner, except for one distinction: his affinity for the music of Billy Joel.

And while this may fit right in with the American stereotype for Italian restaurants, in the ancient city of Florence, this was hardly the case.

Still, his restaurant reminded me of my old home -- and was conveniently located across from my new one -- so I found myself returning there night after night, while I pieced together a lay of the land. It wasn’t long before he and I built up some neighborly rapport.

Lorenzo was a good man -- don’t get me wrong -- but he was also cheap as f*ck.

Despite my frequent trips, he never gave me anything for free -- not that I was necessarily looking for any type of handout.

I suppose I had just gotten used to restaurateurs throwing an extra basket of bread to loyal customers, like they would back home on Long Island.

I mean, seeing the amount of business I gave him, I’m sure he could’ve spared a few extra slivers of mozzarella di bufala, had he felt so compelled.

But I was never insulted he didn’t. He always treated me well and would even let me light up a cigarette with him -- inside the restaurant -- while he’d stack chairs upside down on the tables, late nights after closing.

He explained to me how most businesses operate in Florence: through the family – I kid you not, like the mafia – and with financial luxury coming second to quality, which was equally evident by the wear on his face and taste of his food.

You could see decades of hard work furrowed into the lines on his forehead, and if you ever stopped by after 21:30, he would already be pissy drunk off white wine and small talk.

Still, he never lost sight of the business aspect of everything.

As a matter of fact, to this day, I still remember the only time I saw him take a brief lapse from working. It was around 13:00, one random afternoon.

As I slammed my apartment door shut before setting off for class, I saw Lorenzo closing -- for the day. I asked him if everything was all right.

Keep in mind: For Lorenzo to shut his restaurant doors at such an hour -- the most bustling, lucrative time of his workday -- I figured he had to be dangerously ill or there had to be some great peril he must’ve found himself in. Neither was the case.

“I have to go home and clean my room,” he told me.

Naturally, at first, I thought he was kidding -- that or there was some type of language barrier.

I don’t know -- maybe “cleaning the room” was an Italian euphemism for something more... significant and defensible as an excuse for leaving work. But I was wrong again.

He reiterated to me he had to return home and clean up his apartment.

He explained how business at the restaurant had turned stagnant, and in order for him to become productive at work, he had to, first, be productive at home.

I instantly heard my mom’s voice echo between the walls of my skull, boasting her favorite of mottos: “A clean room is a happy mind.”

The idea of Lorenzo -- too cheap to spare even a piece of the stale bread -- forgoing a day of business to “clean his room” is something that has stayed with me, long after leaving Italy.

For him, the opportunity cost of attaining a clean room -- and, subsequently, a clean mind -- was unparalleled, and he has a case.

According to Psychologist and Author Sherrie Bourg Carter, of Psychology Today, in layman’s terms: Mess causes stress.

As Carter suggests,

“clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli, causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important.”

I’m sure anyone who’s already stressed can attest to the disquiet felt when returning home to a messy environment.

It’s an unsettling feeling, especially in your own room or home, where you’d hope to be most comfortable.

A team of researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute conducted a study to establish a concrete connection between mental and physical disorder.

What they found was rather straightforward: Physical clutter in your environment will inhibit your ability to focus and process information from a cognitive standpoint.

As Carter writes, “clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally,” which is due to the role messy environments play in what the researchers at Princeton University call our attentional modulation, or ability to shift our mental resources from one stimulus to the next.

For example, you may be trying to hone in on that presentation you have to give at the end of the week, but given the amount of seltzer cans and dirty clothes strewn across the floor of your apartment, you haven’t truly been able to switch gears and become fully productive.

“Fortunately, unlike other more commonly recognized sources of stress,” Carter continues, “clutter is one of the easiest life stressors to fix.”

Whenever you feel the pressure start to rise and begin to lose your grip on certain things – whether it be at work or school or anywhere else – double check to make sure the clutter in your home environment isn’t piling up along with it.

In fact, your mess could be the reason for your stress. But remember, it’s never too late to straighten up and straighten out.

You just might need to stop and clean up, first – like Lorenzo – before building some more.